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Chapter 10. Final Preparations
At the sound of the trumpets from the accursed City above them, Ha’asal nodded to the other Men of Haragost, gathered around him to wait for the hour of their doom. ‘It begins,’ he said. ‘Let us do as we must, with good courage and cheer.’
The others nodded, no joy in their eyes, nor pride of anticipated battle. They knew they were no better than goats, driven to slaughter before a great feast. At best they could march in good order, heads high, backs straight, showing no uncertainty in the face of inescapable, inglorious death.
Ha’asal knew their thoughts exactly; he had been feeling much the same bleak despair, until only a short time ago. Ordered to this ignomious death in disgrace, for having fled the battle of the Pelennor to the dubious safety of Mordor, and having survived the battle before the Black Gate when so many others perished. Succored, nursed back to health by their enemies, and sent at last homeward, to face the wrath of the Jackal king… The only way to regain his shattered honour was to march up the seven levels of the devil city, to offer his life in torment and bloodletting upon the altar of the Númenorians.
And what guarantee that his mother, his sister and young brother, should not follow in the same fate? What guarantee that his blood should buy their safety?
But what choice did he have?
He straightened, thinking of the choice he now had, and nodded. ‘Courage,’ he said to his companions. ‘I will fetch the General.’
He nodded to the guards outside the pavilion and pulled back the flap, finding Ha’alan standing quietly, waiting, hand on his scimitar. He saluted and turned back to the entrance, ready to lead Ha’alan forth, only to be halted by the General’s hand.
‘A moment, Ha’asal.’
‘The Men are ready, my General,’ Ha’asal said, suddenly and unaccountably eager. The moment was at hand. He was ready, at last, to get this miserable business over with. ‘The parade is forming.’
‘And it would not do to keep the Ambassador waiting for his escort of honour,’ Ha’alan said. ‘But you should know this, ere you follow him to his doom.’
Ha’asal swung fully around, letting the tent flap drop closed behind him, to stare into his General’s eyes. ‘What is it that I should know?’ His heart was already beating faster; he could feel the pulse in his throat. He’d take deep breaths as they marched, readying himself, even as he steadied his thoughts, focused his mind to bring on the battle-trance at the right time, in the right place.
Ha’alan lowered his voice to the barest breath. ‘I have changed my mind,’ he hissed.
Ha’asal’s eyes widened before he controlled himself and hid his consternation. ‘Changed your mind,’ he said in a toneless voice. And yet every nerve zinged within him.
‘I would not watch our Ambassador suffer such indignities,’ Ha’alan said. ‘He has been nothing but honourable in his dealings with us, with the other Haradrim… He brought us together after the Great Defeat, when we might have descended into chaos, madness, falling upon one another in mindless slaughter.’
Ha’asal nodded; though the Jackal king might have welcomed such chaos as a chance to win more land, more peoples, more power – he had not led his own warriors to battle on the Pelennor or before the Black Gate, had simply sent battalions in tribute, according to the levies demanded by the Dark Lord. While his people marched – as they thought – to victory, he’d remained behind, scheming, strengthening, consolidating his power that he might climb to a higher position, over the bodies of other petty kings, once the War was settled. And now that the War had been settled (albeit in a different direction than any of the Southrons might have foreseen), his schemes continued. Not least of which would be silencing the voice of the Grand Ambassador, who had the skills to unite Men to a common cause, suing for peace from the victors, where the Jackal would have been more focused on the spoils.
Ha’alan broke into the aide’s thoughts by taking his arm in a fierce grip. ‘I will not see him go quietly to his death,’ he said. ‘No! … but we will strike when he puts his hand on the hilt of his weapon, to draw it forth, to present it to that devil King Ha’alessar in formal surrender. That shall be our signal to strike! Let the others know…’ the General’s hand pressed down on Ha’asal’s arm, a staying gesture, ‘…but tell them only to be alert, to be ready to follow your lead. There must be no breath, not even a thought of what is to come, lest their demon Sorcerer should glean our intentions from our minds.’
‘I will tell them,’ Ha’asal said, stepping back as the General released his arm. He raised a hand to touch his forehead in graceful acknowledgement.
‘I will be right behind you,’ Ha’alan said. ‘Inform them, form them up, an honour guard fitting our Ambassador. And you and I shall take our places flanking the Guest of Honour at the devil-King’s banquet, and we shall begin our march… Empty your mind of our intention, as I shall seek to do as well, but hold yourself ready… Their White Sorcerer shall perceive, perhaps, your readiness as steeling yourself for the sacrifice. So we shall hope.’
Ha’asal bowed his head in acknowledgement and pushed his way out of the pavilion.
Preparations were nearly complete in the Hall of Kings, with many of the high and noble gathered, dressed in their finest, to show honour to the Haradrim. Guardsmen, pressed and polished and standing at attention, as still and solemn as the statues of the kings of Gondor, lined the entire perimeter of the Hall, and formed two lines from entrance to Throne. An honour guard, perhaps? Elessar mused, sweeping the hall with keen eyes, before his gaze met that of Faramir. Preparation for things to go as well as might be hoped, or ill?
The Steward nodded, holding his gaze for a moment longer than a cursory acknowledgment, and the King was reminded of Gandalf’s assessment of Denethor, and his younger son after him. He has long sight. He can perceive, if he bends his will thither, much of what is passing in the minds of men, even of those that dwell far off. It is difficult to deceive him, and dangerous to try.* Faramir was expecting trouble, and mantling his preparations in the guise of respect and high esteem.
Elessar himself had felt a sense of unease, growing through the course of the day, that he could not account for, as he dealt with the myriad demands, from the small and niggling (though Faramir was at pains to take the bulk of such upon himself, and spare his King) to the large and concerning.
He had been surprised, not to find young Pippin waiting at attention outside the door to his rooms, when he’d robed himself in the requisite splendour, and was ready to make his way to the Hall of Kings for this latest ceremony. Thinking perhaps the youngster had misunderstood his orders, he’d expected to see him here in the Hall, stationed by the Throne, standing at proud attention and very pleased with himself.
Where was the lad?
Trumpets sounded in a grand, high fanfare, and Elessar stood straighter, though his gaze was still locked with that of his Steward, as if in silent consultation. The feeling of something wrong grew within him, like an itch between his shoulder blades, awkward and annoying.
Faramir had confessed himself uneasy, early in the day. ‘There is a dark mood in the encampment of the Haradrim,’ he had said.
Elessar had nodded. ‘I have felt such,’ he had said. ‘The bitterness of defeat and surrender? But we will raise them up from the dust and ashes, and extend the hand of friendship—and their ambassador, at the head of the myriad kingdoms’ representatives, has given no cause for concern.’
‘He has seemed more resigned than anything else,’ Faramir had agreed. ‘I do not like it.’
‘Would you rather they storm the Citadel with drawn swords?’ Elessar had said, and then had wondered at the shiver of premonition that touched his spine, as if someone’s walked across my grave, as he’d heard one of the hobbits say upon a time.
Meeting Faramir’s steady, urgent gaze, he knew the Steward had shared the sensation, and now likely felt the same unease, the same sense of looming trouble, somewhere in the lower levels of the City, where the Haradrim were all too likely already marching through the First Circle, making their way steadily upward…
The greater part of the Second Circle marketplace, it seemed, had disregarded the admonition to stay out of the street, to stand at the sides or on the walls and wave bright cloths in welcome. No, but as Turambor and Calendil hurried from their stall into the street – Turambor so intent on tracing the sound of torment to its source that he didn’t notice the bundle of herbs still clenched in one hand – a quickly growing crowd came after.
Eliniel and the children followed, and the weaver and the baker and the flower seller came close behind, and a crowd of vendors and customers and yet more children, as if the greengrocer were leading a charge into battle, Captain of a rag-tag army that spilled into the street and promenaded in a meandering, undisciplined rabble from the market to the ruins of the inn. And others, who’d taken up places lining the street, ready to greet the marching Haradrim, joined in, still clutching their festive, colourful cloths.
Heart-rending cries split the air, a high howling and shrieking that made some of the followers cover their ears, and brought tears to the eyes of many. There were murmurs and cries of dismay from those who followed the greengrocers’ lead.
Where is it coming from?
The inn! The ruins – a child!
Someone, run for help! Run, fetch the engineers!
Run to the Houses of Healing!
Turambor trotted across the grass, slowing as he approached the damaged wing, and stopped short for a brief pause in dismay, or to consider, before a fresh wail, clearly coming from the rubble, spurred him into motion once more. He moved much more cautiously now, lifting his head to survey the crumbling walls that still stood, somehow; the hanging railing that had once guarded a balcony; the part of a ceiling not yet completely fallen in – just waiting, perhaps, to grasp him in its jaws. He raised one arm and held it above his head, as if to ward off the menacing stone, as he determinedly advanced into the very mouth of the trap.
Calendil, however, had the presence of mind to turn and hold out his arms to the sides, as if to form a protective wall between the following crowd and danger. ‘Stand back!’ he shouted. ‘It’s not safe!’
‘Turambor!’ Eliniel cried out, trying to push past her brother, though he held firm. ‘Turambor, what are you doing?’
For the greengrocer was still moving cautiously into the ruins, where dust was rising from another shifting of the damaged walls, sifting onto his head and shoulders so that he resembled a baker after tossing flour onto his worktable while vigorously kneading his dough.
‘Turambor!’ Eliniel cried again, but then Luiniel the weaver caught her shoulder with a hiss.
‘Hush!’ he said. ‘What if the noise brings it all down on his head?’ And at his words, those around him hushed their neighbours, and the hushing ran through the crowd, across the green, all the way to the edges that spilled out, half-blocking the street, heedless of the approaching parade.
*Author’s Note: Gandalf actually spoke these words to Pippin, about Denethor, but I have taken the liberty of assuming he might have said something of the sort to Aragorn as well.
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